We talk to Dan Coxon about horror films, holidays, memoir and non-fiction. Dan’s unsettling story of a trip into the woods “Among The Pines” appeard in issue 36 of Neon.
Your story “Among The Pines” has the atmosphere of a horror story about it, but blends the narrative with something else slightly more psychological. Are you a fan of horror? What are your favourite unsettling stories / films / books?
I have to confess, I tend not to read much horror. There’s something about letting those kinds of images inside my head that creeps me out. It’s just too close to home. The closest I get to horror is the weirder moments in William Burroughs, or some of Will Self’s stranger short stories. If I expose myself to horror narratives at all, it tends to be through film, but even then I’m more attracted to the strange and the unsettling rather than the traditional horror tropes. David Lynch’s last few films seem to me to be as disturbing as anything the horror genre has produced, and my story owes more to Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive than it does to anything more generic. Those films unsettle me every time I see them – the existential horror of his narratives feels closer to my own fears and nightmares. I do love David Cronenberg’s early films, though. And The Shining, of course.
You mention on your website that you wrote “Among The Pines” during a holiday at Center Parcs. Were any of the events copied directly from life?
Center Parcs may not seem like the ideal setting for a horror story – but if you think that, you’ve never been there. The corporate blandness, the endless sea of children… it’s truly horrific. But more importantly, it was a break from my everyday routines that allowed me to write. I look after my 22-month old son most days, so I have to grab every writing opportunity that I can find. I’ve taught myself to write in short bursts, stringing them together at the editing stage. But for once, at Center Parcs, I found that I had some time on my hands, and an incredible forest location just outside my window. The rest was simply a leap of the imagination.
And was there anything in the fact that some of the characters in the story are themselves writers?
I’m not sure. I don’t always like stories about writers… it feels too self-referential, as if the author couldn’t be bothered to imagine anything beyond their own experience. But in this instance it simply felt right. Maybe because I was taking the story to some pretty unusual and unsettling places, and I wanted to ground it in my reality. Or who knows – maybe one of the characters was writing their own story…
Can you tell me a bit about your travel memoir Ka Mate: Travels In New Zealand?
That book came about because I encountered this fantastic history while spending three months in New Zealand, and I found that it hadn’t really been tackled in an accessible narrative before. There were history books, but nothing for the average reader. Basically, it just deserved to be told. The country has a truly unique history of colonisation. At the same time, I love reading travel narratives whenever I’m travelling myself, so it seemed a natural choice to write one.
Does your memoir writing inhabit a different space for you than your fiction writing?
In best fence-sitting fashion, I’ll have to say yes and no. Fiction has always been my first true passion, but I write a lot of non-fiction now, of many types. In the last year alone I’ve written memoir pieces on watching Doctor Who over the years, attending a Pixies concert in 1991, and being a stay-at-home dad. The markets for these are very different to the markets for short fiction, so I have to approach them slightly differently, out of necessity. I’m not sure that readers – especially online readers – always distinguish between a literary memoir essay and an article, so you have to think about your target audience more with the non-fiction. The fiction is in many ways more self-indulgent – I write what I want to write, and worry about the audience for it later. But the techniques and skills used for the two are remarkably similar. Fiction or non-fiction: you have to grab your reader’s attention and refuse to let it go, you have to tell a narrative, you have to pace your writing carefully and bring it to a natural conclusion. In the end, it’s all storytelling.
What’s it like being the editor of Litro magazine? What do you do in that role?
I’ve been the non-fiction editor for the Litro website for a few months, and right now I’m making the transition to editing the print magazine. As I’m sure you know, editing can be a lot of work! Right now I’m selecting stories to go into our December issue, which has a “Family Ties” theme. Some will make it into the print magazine, others will be published on our website. At the same time, I have a month’s-worth of non-fiction essays already accepted to lay out and publish over the coming weeks. The hardest thing is that there aren’t many truly bad submissions. There’s a lot of material in the middle of the pack that has to be rejected, but which you actually kind of like and respect. And that’s tough – I know how hard it can be, as an author, to receive another rejection. I don’t have time to send everyone a personalised critique, though, and only a few pieces can finally make it through to publication. It’s heartbreaking, and hard work. I just hope that the readers find the end result to be worth it.
Where can readers find out more about you or keep up to date with your work?
The best thing to do is to follow my blog at www.dancoxon.com. I post anything important about my work there, and there’s a listing of all my previous publications (including some links to my work online). For those who’ve caught the Twitter bug, however, you can also follow me at @DanCoxonAuthor. When I still have some words left in me you can usually find me on there.
Dan Coxon is the author of Ka Mate: Travels in New Zealand, and the Non-Fiction editor for Litro.co.uk. His writing appears in Salon, Gutter, The Weeklings, Spartan, and Daddy Cool. Find more of his work at www.dancoxon.com, or follow him on Twitter: @DanCoxonAuthor.